Bad Conditions for Writing

When it's peak summer in Florida's COVID epicenter, writing isn't exactly top priority.

If I walk my dog at 7 a.m., it’s 88 degrees outside instead of 95. At least it is this time of year. At least it is in Jacksonville—my hometown, from which I have never, ever moved. Sprinkler water is already steaming on the sidewalk, where we pass For Sale signs in what feels like every other yard. “A seller’s market,” they’ve been saying. If the signs aren’t evidence enough of that, there’s the trendy staged furniture on what feels like every other patio, those stiff, midcentury-inspired rope chairs more equipped for a Los Angeles rooftop bar than they are for this swamp air. By the time the closing costs are paid, those chairs will unravel in the humidity, all in the name of Zillow appeal.

One of the houses without a For Sale sign has two others. The one closest to the sidewalk reads, “No pee! No poop! BE RESPECTFUL!” There’s an icon of an Orwellian security camera above the words, which lends the impression that the owners roll the tape every night before bed to see if anyone had the audacity to let their dog leave droppings in their yard; that if I do so, they’ll reprimand me from their window the next time they see me walk by. Their other sign has an American flag and a skull on it, followed by the cumbersome acronym “WWG1WGA.” I know this means “where we go one, we go all” because I spent the weekend after my second Moderna dose on the couch watching that Q-Anon documentary everyone was tweeting about, shivering between chills. 

My dog sniffs the grass, and a woman with an Ann Coulter blowout bounds out the front door of this two-sign household. I want to ask her what she will do, exactly, if my dog—heaven forbid!—so much as tinkles on her lawn. But the Q-Anon sign outweighs this trollish urge, and I instead rush across the street to get away from her—this woman who, judging by her little signs, probably wouldn’t accept a COVID vaccine if her life depended on it. To me, she’s the embodiment of the Delta variant, and even though I’m fully vaccinated, that’s something I have to worry about avoiding more than most, considering where I live. Just as the August heat settled in, Duval County was declared a national COVID hot zone, the epicenter for the entire state of Florida. Our vaccination rate? Low. Our hospitals and ICUs? Full. Our reputation? Tarnished. A photo of a Jacksonville Regeneron clinic received national attention, patients lying on our downtown library’s carpeted hallway floors, moaning as they awaited treatment.

Needless to say, this environment hasn’t fostered much creative energy lately. Lately, writing has felt just like slogging through the August air.

On top of my heightened COVID fear, and on top of the misery that comes with the weather feeling like one perpetual fart, my roof is leaking. Leaking, right smack dab in the middle of hurricane season. Every time it so much at sprinkles (which is every day during the summer), that steady dribble starts up again. My husband, Alex, laid a complex solution of tarps, but there it goes, still leaking away. “It may not even be the roof,” a roofer tells us. To which a contractor claims, “It could be the walls.”

“Or it could be the roof,” says yet another roofer, whose company I called specifically because they also handle construction jobs—two birds, one stone, or so I’d hoped. As he leaves, pulling off the mask I’d asked him to wear when he arrived, he advises that we spray the whole area with water and see what happens.

The leak persists. I joke to Alex that if we just demolish that side of the house, the leak will be gone. Alex jokes back that we should just demolish the whole house instead. I walk the dog again, crossing the street constantly to get away from people. I pass a For Sale sign I hadn’t noticed a day ago. “Just listed!” it says. This time, I ask myself what’s keeping us from putting one in our yard.

“We’re going to split time somewhere,” a friend says when we catch up on the phone—no more in-person visits again for a while. “I’m not sure where yet,” he continues. “Here and L.A., maybe? Or New York. We’ll keep our place here and sublet somewhere else.” 

Before this moment, I thought “splitting time” was something people did if they were rich or retired or both. But my friend has good reasons for doing so. Reasonable reasons. He and his girlfriend both work remotely—he’s a filmmaker, she’s a writer. They’re financially capable of holding onto their place in Jacksonville. If they were to contract the virus, at least other cities would have an open hospital bed. And then there’s the fact of August. The way the humidity feels like fluid in the lungs, causing COVID false alarms in all of us. 

I start to tell my friend what I always tell writer and artist friends when they’re thinking about leaving Jacksonville. That other cities are overrated. That it’s inexpensive here, which means they’ll have more time to actually write and make things instead of working all the time. That the beaches are too beautiful to leave behind, and won’t they miss the St. Johns River, the way it sparkles? Because loving this town—really committing to it—has always been part of who I am. I’ve always been the rare twenty-something who could take a good, long look at where she lived and say, “Okay. I’m satisfied.” I even have a tattoo of the Jacksonville skyline on my foot, for crying out loud—the Main Street Bridge and three iconic skyscrapers. The empty space by my toes is where the sparkling river would be.

But on the phone with my friend, I stop myself from loving Jacksonville out loud. Doing so would feel like trying to convince someone to keep rooting for the Jaguars. Last season may have been rough (just like every season before that), but at least we got first draft pick! A new quarterback, plus Tim Tebow, who’s basically Jacksonville royalty. This will be our season, won’t it? But preseason starts, and we lose. We lose the next game, too. And I’m starting to feel like I’m losing all my reasons for staying here. For the first time, this town feels like it’s outworn its welcome in my life. Or maybe I outwore mine a long time ago, too stubborn to pick up on cues to leave. 

Here I am, a freelancer and writing teacher. And here’s Alex, who’s been working from home, too. Like so many of our peers, the future of our work may rely only on an Internet connection. But if we were to add one more For Sale sign to our street, where would we even go? 

At the end of July, I spent five days in the Appalachian Mountains. I wrote every morning, floated in rivers and waded in waterfalls every afternoon, and went hiking every night, when the temperatures would drop to a glorious 70 degrees. But moving there, or even splitting time—of course it’d be different. If we moved, bringing with us the humdrum of work and life and routine, even waterfall wading would become routine somehow. That doesn’t stop me from wondering if the magic of newness could persist somewhere else, though. I sift through my mental Rolodex of “cities that seem cool,” but even that becomes too much to consider, like trying to select vinaigrette from the wall of hundreds of salad dressings at Publix, a place that now feels as unsafe as it did this time last year. 

Over the weekend, Alex and I test the roof. As I hunch with the garden hose, carefully spraying specific areas at a time, that old August sun hangs heavy on my back like a kid who’s gotten too big for a piggyback ride. We do the whole roof like that, moving the hose an inch at a time. Hours later, no leak. That contractor was right—it could be the walls. Right before I start on them with the hose, though, Alex notices part of a doorframe upstairs that’s missing about two inches of caulk, the wood warping. I spray it with the hose, and there it goes—the leak. All those roofers and contractors, all that spraying, and all we needed was a little caulk. 

Alex puts on his mask and goes to the hardware store. It’s too hot to walk the dog, so I let her in the yard instead. From the palms and oaks, the cicadas’ buzz crescendoes, making it as hard to hear outside as it is to breathe. But that part I don’t mind so much. That part is exactly what I’d miss if we ever split time or split completely. In a yard across the street, our neighbor pulls up their For Sale sign. I don’t know they sold or if they ended up changing their minds, but either way, our county vaccination rate has climbed 5% since the beginning of the month. The Jags play again, and they win. I write a sentence. I write another. Bouncing back? Maybe. Hopefully.

After just a minute outside, my feet are already sweating in my sandals, making my skyline tattoo sparkle like the river itself. Those buildings, that bridge—they could all fall down at any moment. But for now, they’re standing still.

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“Writing alone can give you a very deep sense of satisfaction and lonely victory.” —Greta Gerwig